Obama's story resonates in racially diverse Brazil

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By Juan Forero
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 1:37 PM

IN RIO DE JANEIRO Brazil is a big gumbo of ethnicities, its people proud of their diversity and confident their country is among the most tolerant of nations. But this country - a leading center of black culture - has never had a black president.

So like many Brazilians, Carlos Jose Melo said he would eagerly turn out for President Obama when he tours the country's signature city on Sunday, a day after meeting with President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia.

Melo has spent most of his life in favelas, Rio's rough-and-tumble shantytowns, which were first settled by former slaves and dirt-poor soldiers.

"In Brazil, we have all kinds of culture, people, and our inner identity comes from black people," said Melo, 47, a drug abuse counselor in City of God, a favela Obama is expected to visit on Sunday. "That's why I think Obama is important for the world, because a poor guy suddenly becomes the most important man in the world."

Obama's story - the humble beginnings and the rise to prominence and power - is familiar here. And so is his race, which has struck a chord in a country with the world's second-largest black population, after Nigeria.

Portuguese explorers settled Brazil, followed by waves of Spaniards, Italians, Germans and other Europeans. But about half of its nearly 200 million people are black or of mixed race, descendants of the African slaves shipped in chains from West Africa and Mozambique to work the fields here.

For them, Obama's arrival on the world stage - and his visit to Brazil - is of "capital importance," said Hedio Silva Jr., a constitutional lawyer and black activist who teaches at a predominantly black university.

"People identify with the self-made man, with his discourse, with his family," said Silva, a former secretary of justice in Sao Paulo state. "All this generates hope and feeds the dream of black people in Brazil - that they, too, can access power."

Racial progress

Racial integration has long marked Brazilian society, and racism was never institutionalized as it was in the United States. Brazilians of all colors are proud of the African influence on their culture. But Brazil has had a complex and, according to some black activists, troubling racial history. Slavery was not abolished until 1888, 25 years after the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. And some outsiders find it peculiar that Brazilians ascribe so many racial categories to themselves.

Brazilians of color are more likely than whites to be disenfranchised, attending the worst schools and residing in poverty-stricken regions. "The black community is fighting for space," said the Rev. Jose Adilson Pontes, 49, a black Catholic priest in City of God. "All the spaces where there is exclusion, misery, death, a black man is present."

But like the United States, Brazil has progressed on the racial front - and in ways many Afro-Brazilians once never thought possible.

A great leap forward came with the 2002 election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as president. He is white but came from the poor, largely black northeast. As a boy, he shined shoes in the street; he later became a union rabble rouser, operating outside the rigid power establishment.

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